Many historians have described the Black Death as one of the most catastrophic events in human history. The plague, which set foot in Europe in 1347, left a disastrous legacy that would be felt across the continent several centuries later. A year after its entry into Europe, the plague hit Britain on the southern ports, and by 1349, it had spread to all parts of the country, northern isles of Scotland, as well as the southern parts of Ireland.Within four years, the plague had caused extensive damage across Britain and its neighbors. This paper will delve into the effect of the plague on economy, social class, politics, and religious activities in medieval Great Britain.
Within a short period of its outbreak in Britain, The Black Death decimated populations in millions. According to Burns, the plague killed about 35-45% of the British population in its first strike, and this devastation was particularly monstrous in cities where overcrowding and poor sanitation characterized human settlements. Among the dead was a group of ordinary workers who played a significant role in sustaining agricultural economic activities of Britain as a whole.
Although it took the British population many centuries to recover from the effects of the plague, depopulation was a blessing in disguise in the sense that it offered greater economic opportunities for those who survived the catastrophe.The British population had risen dramatically, and such expansion had put a strain on resources especially those relating to agriculture. Many people took the parcels of land left as owners of these lands were obliterated by the plague. For many peasants, the void left by the victims offered an opportunity, as well as provoked an ambition to become affluent and prosperous. Since large tracts of farmland were available, and few people were available to work on them, peasants used the opportunity to bargain for lower land rents with Landowners. They also managed to negotiate for higher wages which translated into higher standards of living. Other peasants, especially on the east and southern parts of the country, became so successful that they managed to build stone houses for lease, an achievement never realized before.
On the other hand, plantation owners experienced economic decline due to high wages. Production of wheat and wool dropped significantly as agriculture became less profitable due to the rise in costs of labor. As a result, Landowners resorted to leasing land to ambitious peasants. The economic success of peasants somewhat introduced a new balance of power in social classes in Britain. These developments did not impress the Landowners who had dominated land ownership in Britain for centuries. For instance, the new shifts on the economic front created legal and economic conflicts between Landowners and laborers.
The Landowners reacted to the rise of wages by enacting laws that restricted wage increases. The owners of manors dominated the English Parliament, and this gave them the opportunity to change tenancy laws which required, among other things, that all healthy women and men who did not possess land serve manors whenever such offers were presented at the rate that prevailed before the outbreak of the plague.To this effect, a law was passed empowering local authorities and justices (dominated by manors) to collect excess income gained from illegal wages. The mistreatment of laborers built resentment among peasants and this resulted in bitter class conflicts between Landowners and peasants. Years of animosity between the mentioned groups culminated in the outbreak of the Peasants Revolt in 1381.
Positive developments also happened in the structure of family. The plague created two avenues that impacted positively on marriage as well as improved the position of women in society: the demand for people to occupy land left by the victims of the plague and loss of husbands to the plague. Notably, people took spouses as a way of establishing themselves in the lands vacated by the victims of the Black Death. Additionally, young men married early due to increased incomes of their families. As a result, rates of marriage experienced a dramatic increase in the aftermath of the plague. On the other hand, widows prospered under the booming economic opportunities created by the plague. Before the outbreak of the Black Death, women in the British society occupied a lesser position in the family setup.However, the death of husbands created an opportunity for women to create enormous amounts wealth and became more independent. Those that chose to remarry used their solid economic positions to bargain for better treatment in marital relationships.
The Church was not immune to the effects of the Black Death either. For instance, many members of the clergy perished during the catastrophe, leaving a lot of positions unoccupied in the church hierarchy. These positions had to be replaced for smooth continuation of the activities of the Church after the plague. As a result, new, inexperienced clergymen were hired. However, issues of integrity arose from the conduct of the new clergy men as some dabbled in corruption and misused church positions to enrich themselves. This resulted in divisions of the church, culminating in calls for reforms of the doctrines that governed the Church and indeed sowing the seeds of the Reformation.
The aftermath of the Black Death left many questions among survivors on what triggered the plague. A majority of people at the time associated the plague with Devine origins. Others attributed the pestilence to the Jews. Interestingly, some church members such as Thomas Bradwardine, Archbishop of Canterbury, voiced their intellectual understandings of the plague which were embraced by subsequent thinkers. Some of these intellectuals contributed to the birth of medicine as people sought answers to the various illnesses afflicted humanity at the time.
From the preceding discussion, it is evident that despite the decimation of British population by the Black Death, such reduction of population offered opportunities for peasants to prosper as land was available in plenty than before. Conversely, the new position of peasants reduced the economic power of manors which resulted in conflicts. These conflicts led to reformation in both the church and in political leadership. Moreover, the Black Death provoked questions about its treatment, which laid the foundations of medicine centuries later. In spite of the catastrophic impact which included the death of about one-third of the British population, the Black Death instigated extensive social, economic, and religious reforms. These changes created an indelible mark of legacy on British society visible even today.
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Ingolsby, Bron B., and Suzanna D. Smith. Families in Global and Multicultural Perspective. Newcastle: SAGE, 2006.
Kitsikopoulos, H. "The Impact of the Black Death on Peasant Economy in England, 1350-1500." The Journal of Peasant Studies 29, no. 2 (2002), 71-90. doi:10.1080/714003952.
Logan, Donald F. A History of the Church in the Middle Ages. Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.
Morgan, Kenneth O. The Oxford History of Britain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Peschke, Zachary. "The Impact of the Black Death." ESSAI 5, no. 32 (2007), 111-114. http://dc.cod.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1032&context=essai.
Platt, Colin. King Death: The Black Death And Its Aftermath In Late-Medieval England. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2014.
Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. London: Faber & Faber, 2013.
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